Monday, September 12, 2005

Cutting through the Red Tape of Life

Here's the scenario: you're driving along a desert road in the middle of nowhere. There are no trees, and you can see for ten miles in every direction. There are no other cars. A couple hundred metres ahead, there's a crossroads with a four way Stop sign.

Do you stop? According to the law, you should. But what purpose does it serve in this situation? Stop signs exist to prevent collisions at intersections. In this case, there are clearly no cars. You could stop out of principle that you should always obey the law. But I say you should look both ways, and if there's still no cars for ten miles in either direction, drive right on through.

Am I advocating lawlessness? Certainly not. What I'm pointing out is that there's a difference between immutable laws (such as don't kill people for fun and profit), and laws that are largely regulation. In blowing through that stop sign, you have not committed evil. All you've done is disregarded a regulation that had no meaning in your current situation.

You cut through the red tape of life.

Let's extend the metaphor a bit. Same situation, except that this time you've got a badly wounded man in your back seat. He's a good man, worthy of being saved. He's bleeding out quickly, and you've got to get him to the hospital that's a kilometre past the stop sign. If you stop, he dies for certain. Do you adhere to the law? In this case, I'd say that in stopping, you're committing evil. You've abdicated independent thought in favour of mindless adherence to meaningless rules, and by doing so you've let a good man die.

Let's extend it a little bit more. Same situation: desert, wounded man, except this time there's a car coming towards the intersection. I'll make it more interesting: you've got a stop sign, but the other car doesn't. Do you stop, or step on the gas, hold down the horn, and try to make it through? You're now gambling with the other driver's life too. You'll have to gauge the speed and distance, and weigh the chances of yourself, the other driver, and the wounded man dying in a crash, against the certainty of the wounded man dying if you stop. It's going to be a close call in any case, so there isn't really a correct answer to this situation.

So what was the point of this exercise? Merely to demonstrate that we can't rely on other people telling us that the law says to do this or do that. Comparatively few of our laws have anything to do with fundamental issues of good and evil; most of them are simply regulations. They're red tape, muddying the waters so many people can't see for themselves what's right and what's wrong.

You need to go through life with your eyes open, and take direction from your internal moral compass. In everyday situations, ask yourself if you're doing what's right, or if you're just rigidly following regulations and procedures that might not even apply to the situation. If you're not consciously doing what's right, then you're not free. You have no independence.

Be aware of your actions and their consequences. Think for yourself. Free your mind, and start living your life.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

On Paranoia, and the Murder of Jean Charles de Menezes

Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian electrician legally living and working in Britain, was recently murdered by London police.

The Globe and Mail recently reported that:

Witnesses said the Brazilian was wearing a heavy, padded coat when plainclothes police chased him into a subway car, pinned him to the ground and shot him in the head and torso.

"They pushed him onto the floor and unloaded five shots into him," witness Mark Whitby told the British Broadcasting Corp. "He looked like a cornered fox. He looked petrified."

Now, pardon me if it's not politically correct to point this out, but if you have a man pinned to the ground, and then you shoot him in the head, that is murder. I don't care what you may say about terrorists and security. Summary execution of a subdued, prone prisoner is murder, plain and simple.

This incident, alas, clearly demonstrates that the terrorists won this round by creating an atmosphere of hysteria and paranoia.

Instead of responding with random bag searches and tossing out any real concept of civil rights and freedom, the UK government should have doubled the number of troops assigned to anti-terrorist activities abroad. When London was attacked again, they should have doubled the number of troops yet again.

Fomenting hysteria and paranoia is what terrorism's all about (terror, after all, being the root word of terrorism). When police summarily murder pedestrians as a result of paranoia, the terrorists have won.

When we blithely allow, or even encourage, politicians to strip us of our civil rights, the terrorists have scored a major victory. Witness how quickly and easily our rights have been eroded since 9/11/01. How many hundreds of years did it take to achieve those rights? How long do you think it will take to regain them?

In the end, are you any safer after losing so many rights? No, not at all. Most "security" is just smoke and mirrors. So, what's the net effect of all the draconian security measures and sweeping police powers we've blindly accepted since 9/11? Well, we've dramatically increased our likelihood of being unjustly (and without due process) imprisoned, beaten, tortured, or outright murdered by the same people who a few short years ago we could confidently have said were there to protect us. Legal recourse? None. We gave that up in the name of security.

Without any checks and balances, the legions upon legions of people employed to protect us have become a greater threat to us than any terrorist ever dreamt of.

Perhaps you disagree. Maybe you don't find overzealous omnipresent security to be unnerving. Maybe all the "security" makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

Well, let's ask Jean Charles de Menezes his opinion. Oh right, he's dead. Unaccountably murdered in the name of security.

"Those who suppress freedom always do so in the name of law and order."
- John V. Lindsay

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
- Benjamin Franklin

Monday, July 18, 2005

Why Harry Potter isn't getting kids Hooked on Reading

Harry Potter has created a tremendous surge of interest in reading. Children read Harry Potter voraciously; they even read the books over and over again. However, many children aren't moving on to enthusiastically devour their local bookstore or school library. They get stuck on Harry, and nothing else. When they're done with Harry, they go back to TV and video games, and complain that books are too long or difficult to read (despite having read hundreds of pages of Harry).

Why is this? Why doesn't reading Harry Potter translate into a general love of reading? Is Harry Potter so spectacularly head and shoulders above the rest of the literary pack? Well, not really. Harry Potter is well written and well crafted, but that's simply on par with most other fantasy fiction. I think the difference is the marketing.

Harry Potter is a marketing phenomenon, and in our herd-like trend-following jump-on-the-latest-bandwagon society, this creates an unusual situation. Children who've never seen the inside of a bookstore before, let alone a public library, are dressed up in costumes and carted off to the bookstore with the flashiest launch party for each Harry Potter. Since the books are good, and because of the collective pressure to have read Harry, the children read the books. They enjoy them tremendously, but they don't take their newfound love of reading any farther than Harry.

You see, unless a movie is made, there isn't really any marketing for books other than Harry Potter. The Lord of the Rings is now a great movie trilogy, and lo and behold, kids are reading Lord of the Rings. But they're not reading The Hobbit. Since the only thing they know about books is the advertising for Harry Potter, children don't realize that when they're done with Harry, more entertainment awaits them in their local bookstore or library.

The problem isn't that there aren't good books out there. I have hundreds of great adventures on the shelves lining the walls of my home. The problem is that our society doesn't encourage a culture of reading in the home. Right from the time they're toddlers, instead of reading to their children, parents are dropping them in front of the TV to watch the latest DVD. In our schools, the curriculum and demands on teachers are so heavy that many teachers don't feel they have the time to read long books out loud to their classes, or to design lessons around good literature. Of course, in school, most reading is considered "work". Teachers are pressured to constantly assess, measure, evaluate; so children are too seldom encouraged to read for the simple pleasure of reading. Giving children a love of reading is best done at home.

How do we create a culture of reading, so that kids know where to go beyond Harry? It's easier than you think. Read out loud to your children from the very beginning. Read them interesting books, not poorly-written drivel that will turn their brains to mush. Keep a dictionary at hand, and when they don't know a word, tell them to look it up. Long words are interesting. They're the meat of our language. The short high-frequency words emphasized in schools are the mere bones.

Take your children to the public library on a regular basis. Make it an adventure. Make it a family tradition they look forward to each week. Regular trips to the library (and the bakery next door) with my Mom are something I remember fondly from childhood. The library was my second home back then, and now that I'm an adult, my home has become a library. Speaking of adults, you also need to practice what you preach. Children won't become avid readers if they never see anyone at home reading a book. You have to model behaviour for them. If they see you reading on a regular basis, if they can talk about books with you, then they'll become readers. Simple as that.

Some reading resources:

Helping your child to read

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Vivicam 3545 Digital Camera

Recently I bought a Vivitar Vivicam 3545 digital camera for $40 CDN. Shopping around, comparably priced cameras were limited to 640x480 and only had 8 MB memory.

The 3545 is a 1.3 megapixel (1280x1024) camera with 16 MB memory. It's a stick design, meaning you hold it vertically to take pictures. It's kind of neat, because it lets you take pictures one-handed, with either hand. That should be good for taking pictures while doing sports.

The pictures it takes are pretty good, so long as the lighting is good and bright. There's no flash on this unit, which means it's limited to outdoor and well-lighted events.

The 16 MB memory lets me keep a fair number of pictures depending on resolution and compression (JPEG) settings. Depending on settings, the camera can store anywhere from 20 to 250 pictures. Since this camera acts as a USB mass storage device in Windows, it's nice and easy to copy pictures off the camera.

The PhotoSuite software included looks fairly comprehensive, with nice features like automatic photo touchup, and the capability to remove wrinkles and blemishes.

My only real criticism of the camera is that every time you turn it on, it defaults to high-resolution high-quality mode (least memory-efficient) instead of remembering previous settings. It takes a couple seconds to switch modes to get more capacity, but this is balanced by the 3545 being pretty much an instant-on camera.

If all you need is a basic point and shoot camera, I think the Vivicam 3545 is pretty good value for the money. It's compact enough to carry around all the time, and it can produce great looking pictures, particularly if your pictures will usually be displayed on a screen.

Update: A fairly critical design flaw has reared its ugly head. This camera won't work with standard rechargeable batteries, not even high-capacity NiMH. I was, however, able to get it to work with rechargeable alkalines, which is good but not ideal. It's a rather poor design when a product won't work with rechargeable batteries. Right up there with stupid design decisions like making products that work with odd numbers of batteries. Since batteries are charged in pairs, that makes charging a pain.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

What's on my Flash Drive

I received a 256MB Sandisk Cruzer Micro flash drive for Christmas. I've been slowly loading it up with stuff (an ongoing process), trying to think of creative uses for it.

Here's what's on it so far:
  • A README.TXT file containing contact info in case I lose the flash drive.
  • A 20MB 128-bit Blowfish encrypted Cryptainer volume. The cryptainer volume houses my Data directory.
  • An unsecured data directory called Lore.
  • A Books directory containing eReader, a couple of Palm Doc books, and a couple of PDF books.
  • A MP3 directory with Coolplayer in it (but no MP3s yet).
  • A Games directory containing Asteroids, Tetris (both from, and Chess-It.
  • A Utils directory with 7za.exe, Upx, MD5Sum, Split32, Nano, and GnuPG.
  • A Tools directory containing installers for AntiVir, Spybot S&D, Adaware, Firefox, Miranda, Putty, 7-Zip, Irfanview, and AxCrypt.
Any standalone executables on the drive, such as the games or utilities, have been compressed with UPX so that they use up only half as much space.

I've been thinking about putting portable versions of Firefox and other programs on the drive, but I don't want to put excessive wear on it. It's easy to carry an installer and "upgrade" any computer that doesn't have a program I need, and keeping portable working versions would take up a lot of space. As it is, I've got room to carry around some big files (like OpenOffice) and still have lots of room to spare (over 100 MB). I might try putting a copy of Slax on the drive for fun.

So, do you have any interesting uses for your flash drive?

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Tsunami Death Toll a Drop in the Bucket

Without a doubt, 140,000 deaths so far is certainly a tragedy. In the localities affected, the death toll and physical destruction certainly constitute a disaster.

However, on a global scale, this is not even a drop in the bucket. In fact, it's not even unusual.

There are roughly 6,000,000,000 (6 billion) people living on Earth today. To make even a minor (1%) dent in the population, we'd need to have 60,000,000 (60 million) people die.

If we inflate the tsunami numbers to 600,000 dead, that's a mere 1/100th of 1% of the world's population. If we inflate them to 6,000,000, we're still only up to 1/10 of 1% of the population.

In the time since the tsunami, roughly the same number of people have died of AIDS. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are living in abject poverty, starving, and diseased.

Where is the world's compassion for those people? It's sickening to watch the news. Ongoing problems in the world are blithely ignored, but as long as you've got a good sound bite or video clip to go with your tragedy, North Americans will cry on the news and go on and on about compassion and the need for relief funds. It shouldn't be surprising, I suppose. This myopic vision is a defining characteristic of human society.

Burgeoning human population and enthusiastic use of technology without thought of consequences has thrown the Earth's ecosystem as a whole out of balance. In just the past hundred years, humans have accounted for countless extinctions of plant and animal species, changed the Earth's climate, and dramatically increased our own population.

In many ways, natural disasters such as extreme weather (from hurricanes to droughts), earthquakes, and outbreaks of new and old diseases, can be interpreted as Mother Nature trying to restore balance to the Earth.

As a species, we need to wake up and start treating our home with respect. We have to curtail population growth, and live in a sustainable manner. We also need to devise effective solutions to ongoing problems in the world.

Otherwise we're playing chicken with Mother Nature, and we're going to be unprepared when she decides to make a major correction to human population.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

What to expect from this blog...

I've had my own web sites for years (since 1995... they started as gopher sites), and mostly they're done by hand (HTML in Notepad). Recently I was researching some modern tools to update the look of my web pages (Web Page Maker has a beautiful interface), and I ended up researching blogs. Then I discovered Blogger.

Blogger was so amazingly simple, and the templates created such beautiful sites, that I had to start my own blog. In fact, the blog solved an old problem for me. Originally my sites were intended to be more blog-like, but I found I needed them to provide static information. So, a blog is a perfect complement to those static sites (see my sidebar).

So, on abstract intuitive (named because that's the mode my brain works in most of the time) you'll find all sorts of stuff. I don't intend it to focus on a particular topic at this time. I'll just meander a bit and hope what I write is interesting to somebody. I'll do my best not to let it become too vapid. In general, I'll post specific stand-alone articles that can be referenced rather than wishy-washy stream of consciousness stuff.